Mode of action-based risk assessment of genotoxic carcinogens

Andrea Hartwig*, Michael Arand, Bernd Epe, Sabine Guth, Gunnar Jahnke, Alfonso Lampen, Hans Jörg Martus, Bernhard Monien, Ivonne M.C.M. Rietjens, Simone Schmitz-Spanke, Gerlinde Schriever-Schwemmer, Pablo Steinberg, Gerhard Eisenbrand*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

104 Citations (Scopus)


The risk assessment of chemical carcinogens is one major task in toxicology. Even though exposure has been mitigated effectively during the last decades, low levels of carcinogenic substances in food and at the workplace are still present and often not completely avoidable. The distinction between genotoxic and non-genotoxic carcinogens has traditionally been regarded as particularly relevant for risk assessment, with the assumption of the existence of no-effect concentrations (threshold levels) in case of the latter group. In contrast, genotoxic carcinogens, their metabolic precursors and DNA reactive metabolites are considered to represent risk factors at all concentrations since even one or a few DNA lesions may in principle result in mutations and, thus, increase tumour risk. Within the current document, an updated risk evaluation for genotoxic carcinogens is proposed, based on mechanistic knowledge regarding the substance (group) under investigation, and taking into account recent improvements in analytical techniques used to quantify DNA lesions and mutations as well as “omics” approaches. Furthermore, wherever possible and appropriate, special attention is given to the integration of background levels of the same or comparable DNA lesions. Within part A, fundamental considerations highlight the terms hazard and risk with respect to DNA reactivity of genotoxic agents, as compared to non-genotoxic agents. Also, current methodologies used in genetic toxicology as well as in dosimetry of exposure are described. Special focus is given on the elucidation of modes of action (MOA) and on the relation between DNA damage and cancer risk. Part B addresses specific examples of genotoxic carcinogens, including those humans are exposed to exogenously and endogenously, such as formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and the corresponding alcohols as well as some alkylating agents, ethylene oxide, and acrylamide, but also examples resulting from exogenous sources like aflatoxin B1, allylalkoxybenzenes, 2-amino-3,8-dimethylimidazo[4,5-f] quinoxaline (MeIQx), benzo[a]pyrene and pyrrolizidine alkaloids. Additionally, special attention is given to some carcinogenic metal compounds, which are considered indirect genotoxins, by accelerating mutagenicity via interactions with the cellular response to DNA damage even at low exposure conditions. Part C finally encompasses conclusions and perspectives, suggesting a refined strategy for the assessment of the carcinogenic risk associated with an exposure to genotoxic compounds and addressing research needs.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1787-1877
Number of pages91
JournalArchives of Toxicology
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 15 Jun 2020


  • Biomarker dosimetry
  • Carcinogens
  • Endogenous exposure
  • Exogenous exposure
  • Genotoxicity
  • Mode of action
  • Mutagens
  • Risk assessment
  • Toxicogenomics


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